David Bruce: Opera Anecdotes — Children


• José Carreras discovered opera when he was a child. He saw the movie The Great Caruso, which starred Mario Lanza in the title role, and he started to sing the arias that he had heard in the movie. As a result, his family bought a record player and the soundtrack from the movie. Of course, as a child José did not sing as well as he did years later as a star of opera. He sometimes had to sing his favorite aria, “La Donna è Mobile,” in the bathroom; however, he sometimes performed in his mother’s salon, and her customers gave him small tips that he used to buy small toys and candy. As an adult, Mr. Carreras made his debut at La Scala as Riccardo in Un Ballo in Maschera. The great tenor Giuseppe di Stefano saw him in rehearsal and noticed that his costume did not fit well. Mr. di Stefano took him to his own vast costume collection and gave him a costume that fit him better — it was the same costume that Mr. di Stefano had worn in the same role when he performed at La Scala. (43)

• Conductor Walter Damrosch used to give the Siegfried whistle when he wanted his children to come to him. This whistle is the music that Siegfried blows on his horn when he calls the dragon to come and fight him. When his daughter Gretchen heard this music the first time she attended a performance of Wagner’s Siegfried, she almost automatically got up to go to her father, and then she wondered how Siegfried had gotten ahold of her father’s music. The Siegfried whistle came in handy at railway stations — it prevented the children from getting lost. While the family was traveling by train in Milan, Italy, Mr. Damrosch sounded the Siegfried whistle at a railway station, and an Italian who knew the music well answered him. One of the Damrosch daughters went to their father; the other three Damrosch daughters went to the musical Italian. (44)

• Leo Slezak and his wife sometimes allowed their children to bring cots into their room and sleep there. This worked well for their son, Walter, who slept soundly, but their daughter, Greterl, used to stay awake and wait for them to return home after a party. Mr. Slezak wanted her to get her rest, so he said that unless she went to sleep, she wouldn’t be allowed to sleep in his and his wife’s bedroom. The only result was that his daughter pretended to be asleep when he and his wife returned home. He used to ask, “Are you asleep, Greterl?” She would reply, “Yes, Daddy.” Later, she wouldn’t fall for that trick, so Mr. Slezak would hold a chocolate under her nose and ask, “Have a chocolate?” Unable to resist the temptation, Greterl would open her eyes and pop the chocolate in her mouth. (45)

• Tenor Carlo Bergonzi knew early that he wanted to sing professionally. When he was 14 years old, he was working in a cheese factory, pushing a wheelbarrow and singing. However, his foreman stopped him and said, “One cannot do [two] things at once. One can either work, or sing.” Immediately, young Carlo made up his mind: “In that case, I’d much rather sing!” Before going home, he told the story of his quitting to his father, who worked in the same cheese factory. His father approved of his decision: “Good. Now go home.” The next day, Carlo auditioned for a singing teacher. (46)

• Even at a very early age, soprano Geraldine Farrar was determined to appear before the public. In 1892, when she was 10 years old, her hometown of Melrose, Massachusetts, decided to put on a celebration with schoolchildren representing the first 13 states. Her school had the honor of selecting a girl to participate. Geraldine was selected, and she represented Massachusetts on a float. Watching the float with black eyes — courtesy of Geraldine — were two little girls in her class who had not wanted her to be the girl participating in the celebration. (47)

• As a small boy, Andrea Bocelli spent time in a hospital because of his congenital bilateral glaucoma. His eyes hurt, and he was restless. However, his mother discovered that at times when he lay pressed against a wall he became relaxed, and when he moved away from the wall he cried. His mother moved next to the wall and concentrated. From the room next door came the faint sound of music. She went next door and requested permission to sometimes bring her son in to visit and to listen to the record player. In this way, young Andrea discovered music. (48)

• When Christine Nilsson was a child, her family was impoverished. One way they made money was to teach Christine and her brother a few songs, and whenever their mother saw a stranger coming, she had the children play music for him until he had given them money. Some strangers gave them money because the strangers liked their playing; others gave them money so that they would stop their playing. Later, she made great sums of money as an operatic soprano. (49)

• In the 1960s, while Schuyler Chapin was head of the Columbia Records Masterworks department, his family had an outing with the family of soprano Eileen Farrell. One of Mr. Chapin’s sons, Sam, was just starting to learn how to tell jokes, and he asked Ms. Farrell, “Where does a 600-pound canary sit?” After hearing the answer, “Anywhere it wants to,” Ms. Farrell asked him what a 600-pound canary would sound like. Sam didn’t know, so Ms. Farrell said, “Like this,” and she sang a high C that had Sam covering his ears. (50)

• On October 11, 1968, Plácido Domingo became the father of a boy, whom he named Alvaro. The very next night, Mr. Domingo sang at the New York City Opera in Pagliacci. He played the part of a clown, and in one scene he was supposed to throw candy to a chorus of children on stage, but on this night he instead threw cigars to the adults, including adults in the audience. Each cigar was marked, “It’s a boy!” (51)

• When Maria Callas was a young girl, she and Jackie, her sister, were supposed to make their bed, but sometimes they forgot. Whenever that happened, their mother would go to their closet, take out their clothes, and put the clothes in the hallway. Maria and Jackie would come home, see the clothes, and say “Oh, Mother!” Then they would pick up their clothes, put them away, and make up their bed. (52)

• As a child, Gladys Ripley wanted to be a soprano, in part because she loved the “Miserere” duet from Il Trovatore, but nature insisted that she be a contralto. She was finally won over after hearing the singing of contralto Clara Butt. Ms. Ripley was impressed by the diamond tiara that Ms. Butt wore at the concert, she realized that contraltos could be important people, and she became a contralto. (53)

• Mariah Carey’s mother, Patricia, sang with the New York City Opera, and of course she listened to recordings of opera at home, and sometimes she sang along. One day, she sang part of an aria, then she stopped, and Mariah sang the next line — in Italian! At the time, Mariah was not yet three years old! (54)

• Antoine de Choudens was a music publisher who got rich from the French rights to Charles Gounod’s Faust. However, Mr. Choudens did not like music. Whenever his children misbehaved, he used to threaten to take them to the opera unless they straightened up.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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